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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC Member

French President Emmanuel Macron hosted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a rare meeting on August 19, before the start of the G7 summit in Biarritz. Le Monde asked RIAC Director General to share his thoughts on the meeting and the Russia-France relations.

French President Emmanuel Macron hosted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a rare meeting on August 19, before the start of the G7 summit in Biarritz. Le Monde asked RIAC Director General to share his thoughts on the meeting and the Russia-France relations.

Why did the two presidents decide to meet on August 19 in France? Can we use the term "reset" about the French-Russian relations?

“Reset” is probably too strong a word to be used here. Still, France is a member of both the Atlantic alliance and the European Union and it is not going to question the integrity of both institutions by launching its separate ‘reset’ with Russia. However, both presidents hope to benefit from the meeting. For Emmanuel Macron this is another opportunity to claim the French leadership in making the EU foreign policy, especially on the eve of the forthcoming G7 summit and the Normandy Group summit-level meeting; France will host both gatherings this time. For Putin, the trip to Paris is yet another demonstration that Russia is not isolated or ostracized in European politics. Putin also understands that with Angela Merkel approaching her retirement and getting weaker, Macron becomes stronger in Europe – at least, in relative terms.

How would you describe the relations between the two presidents?

I do not think that Macron is an easy partner for Putin. The Russian president would probably prefer to deal with someone like Jacques Chirac or François Fillon. After all, Macron is twenty-five years younger than Putin; the former belongs to “Generation X”, while the latter is a baby-boomer. I can imagine that for Macron it is easier to communicate with Volodymyr Zelensky from Ukraine, who belongs to the same age group as Macron. However, the age difference does not necessarily exclude positive chemistry between the two leaders. They have already met a couple of times and it seems that they get along with each other pretty well. I do not know for sure, but I hope that for Macron it might be less painful and less frustrating to deal with Putin than to interact with Donald Trump. Similarly, I suspect that for Putin Macron might look less difficult than Theresa May or even above mentioned Angela Merkel.

What does Russia expect from this meeting with the French president?

Expectation management is always important in preparing summits. I am sure that the Russian side would like to touch base with the French on matters like Ukraine, Syria, Iran, maybe Libya as well. It is quite possible that Putin will raise more general matters – like a new European security architecture of the future of arms control in Europe and beyond. As always, there is a bilateral agenda as well – trade, investments, cooperation in the fields of culture, education and so on. As I have said, I do not anticipate any breakthroughs or a new Russian-French entente as the result of this trip. However, even an incremental progress on one or two important matters would already be a significant accomplishment under the circumstances.

Apparently, the two diplomacies are trying to find bridges of convergence. What can these reconciliation topics be?

There could be no reconciliation without a visible progress on Ukraine. Both sides understand the centrality of this problem for the future of their bilateral relations as well as for the future of the Russia’s relations with the West at large. The trip to Paris gives Vladimir Putin an opportunity to demonstrate a new degree of flexibility on this problem. The parliamentary election in Ukraine is already behind us, the Ukrainian electorate has confirmed its overwhelming support to the new leadership, the time to move ahead is now. Arguably, the most intriguing question of the Russian-French summit is whether Vladimir Putin has any new ideas on the Ukrainian settlement to share with Emmanuel Macron. Of course, there might be other potential points of reconciliation between Russia and the West – like confidence-building measures in Europe, more collaboration on fighting international terrorism or on climate change. However, each of these points will require a lot of political will on both sides and a lot of technical work at lower levels. At best, the two leaders can demonstrate the will and authorize diplomats, military and experts to roll up sleeves and to start working.

President Putin said that the western liberal model was dead and President Macron said no. Can this be another subject of tension between the two countries?

I am not sure that Putin and Macron have the same understanding of liberalism. For the Russian president, “liberalism” apparently has a derogatory meaning, it stands for chaos, anarchy, the Russian commotion of the 1990s and many other bad things have happened in the world. For Macron liberalism is the foundation of contemporary Europe, the cornerstone of European values and institutions, a source of hope and inspiration. We need someone like Jacques Derrida to adjudicate this dispute! However, it seems clear that France and Russia will have very different political systems in the foreseeable future, and we have to accept this reality. On the other hand, it does not mean that there can be no common denominators on such core matters as human rights. Personally, I was very encouraged by the recent decision to bring Russia back to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, which is, in my view, a clear sign that Russia and the West still try to operate within a common political and humanitarian space.

What about recent repressions against Putin’s opponents in Russia? Could they complicate the dialogue in Paris?

The recent clashes between police units and political opposition in Moscow will undoubtedly cast a shadow over the Putin’s trip to Paris. It is easy to foresee many venomous questions from the French media regarding the alleged police brutality demonstrated in Russia’s capital. At the same time, it is also easy to predict Putin’s answers to these questions – he will draw parallels between how the Moscow police handled the opposition and how the French police dealt with ‘yellow vests’ in Paris. The message from the Russian leader will be that one should avoid double standards and biased conclusions about the “Russian authoritarianism.” It is up to the French public to judge whether this is a fair point or not.

First published in Le Monde.

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